Staff Sgt. Maria Nanita, left, Staff Sgt. Mary Nelson and Sgt. 1st Class Malease Cross are the only female drill sergeants on Fort Benning's Sand Hill.

FORT BENNING, Ga. -- Sgt. 1st Class Malease Cross is nearing 20 years in the military and the mother of three teenage daughters. Staff Sgt. Mary Nelson has deployed twice to Iraq, while Staff Sgt. Maria Nanita, who's been to Afghanistan, felt her Army career was in a rut.

The three women are Reservists from Birmingham, Ala., assigned to B Company, 1st Battalion, 378th Infantry Regiment - a basic combat training unit for the 192nd Infantry Brigade. They're also the only female drill sergeants on Sand Hill.

Company leaders said they go on the same runs and rucksack marches as the men. The 3 a.m. wakeups and 18-hour workdays are no different, either. And after arriving on Fort Benning this past spring with the rest of the battalion, they earned the respect of peers and Soldiers alike.

"They hold their own, same as the male drill sergeants," said 1st Sgt. Ricardo Polk, B Company's first sergeant. "They're very professional dealing with the privates, well-versed in what they do. They continue to impress me all the time."

Among the trio, Nelson - a member of the Army for eight years, including seven on active duty - has been a drill sergeant the longest, finishing the school at Fort Jackson, S.C., in June 2009. Cross and Nanita first put on their hats in February.

Being a woman in such a male-dominated profession has the occasional challenge, they said. However, there's no distinction when it comes to interaction with trainees, all of whom are male.

"In the transition from civilian to military, the respect factor is there," Nanita said. "It's a shock for them whether it's a male drill or a female drill. You have to establish it early: 'I'm the drill sergeant, you're the private. I'm not your mom, girlfriend or wife.'"

"You may have one who might disrespect you when they first show up, but you've got to nip it in the bud ... You definitely have to let them know, 'I'm here to teach something you don't know, and while you're here, you will respect me.' And it goes both ways."

Parameters are set up during in-processing to avoid awkward situations, too. For instance, the women aren't allowed in company bays during shower or personal time, and the male Soldiers can't walk around in just a towel if the female drill sergeants are in the living areas.

"We let them know the do's and don'ts right away," Cross said.

While the unit's internal dynamics are the same, Nelson said some active-duty drill sergeants across Sand Hill seemed a little skeptical at first about working with female counterparts.

"But we're not your average female group, so I think we all mesh well together," she said.

In basic training, Soldiers are divided into four categories for morning PT. Cross runs with the A group.

"I'm always pushing myself to be better," she said. "As a female, you have to push yourself a little farther - on ruck marches, runs and physical activities - so the privates will say, 'If she can do it, I can, too.'"

Cross, a senior drill sergeant who spent a dozen years on active duty, said she joined the Army Reserve to spend more time with her family. After being promoted to sergeant first class, she was offered the position of drill sergeant.

"I've always loved training Soldiers," she said. "This is just another form of training and leading Soldiers - in a different capacity ... It's all about mentorship, guiding and being a role model."

Nanita said she'd been in the Army Reserve about six years but thought her military career needed a boost. A former sergeant major urged her to become a drill sergeant.

She and Nelson both have a child at home, and they said the job has many similarities to parenthood.

"It's a very rewarding job and can be very demanding," Nanita said. "You're a caretaker; we make sure the Soldiers are OK. We're with them from the time they wake up till they go to sleep at night, and everything in between."

"The only differences: With a child, you're teaching them how to survive in the real world; here, we teach them how to survive in combat."

Polk conceded he was among the skeptics upon learning there'd be women serving under him as drill sergeants - but they erased his reservations almost immediately, he said.

"They took charge and moved on," Polk said. "They've been a real asset to my unit. It makes me proud to know we're the only unit at Fort Benning with female drill sergeants, and they're just as strong as my male drill sergeants."

Page last updated Thu August 26th, 2010 at 16:59